4 Movies Like Thief (1981)

Staff & contributors

The bare bones of The Limey’s story — vengeful Cockney ex-con Wilson (Terence Stamp) flies to LA to investigate the suspicious death of his daughter Jenny — are gripping enough, but what Steven Soderbergh does with them elevates this neo-noir thriller into something utterly singular and stacked with layers upon layers of meaning. An icon of London’s Swinging ‘60s scene, Stamp is pitted against laidback symbol of ‘60s American counterculture Peter Fonda (as Jenny’s sleazy older boyfriend), giving their face-off grander cultural stakes. The extra-textual significance of the casting is deepened by Soderbergh’s ingenious references to the actors’ heyday: in flashbacks to Wilson’s happier past, for example, we’re shown the actual Stamp in his younger years (courtesy of scenes borrowed from 1967’s Poor Cow).

The Limey is also a brilliant showcase for editor Sarah Flack’s technical inventiveness: though the narrative is largely linear, the film cuts to and from scenes and sounds at unexpected points, giving the film an almost David Lynch-like sense of eerie fragmentation. Conjuring up a nightmare LA atmosphere isn’t all the editing does, either, as the film’s puzzle pieces are expertly reassembled to reveal an emotional gut-punch of an ending. In short, this high point in Soderbergh’s filmography is a must-see for any fan of cinema.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery

Actor: Allan Graf, Amelia Heinle, Barry Newman, Bill Duke, Brandon Keener, Brooke Marie Bridges, Carl Ciarfalio, Carol White, Clement Blake, Dwayne McGee, George Clooney, Jim Jenkins, Joe Dallesandro, John Cothran, John Robotham, Johnny Sanchez, Lesley Ann Warren, Luis Guzman, Matthew Kimbrough, Melissa George, Michaela Gallo, Nancy Lenehan, Nicky Katt, Ousaun Elam, Peter Fonda, Rainbow Borden, Randy Lowell, Steve Heinze, Terence Stamp, Wayne Pére, William Lucking

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rating: R

Before The Silence of the Lambs and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal, there was Manhunter and Brian Cox’s deeply unnerving Dr. Lecktor. Michael Mann’s neon-lit serial-killer thriller follows Will Graham (William Petersen), a retired FBI agent lured back to work by a psychotic mass murderer whom no one at the Bureau can catch. But Will has something no one else on the force does: he was so committed to tracking down the now-imprisoned Lecktor that he developed an ability to warp his mind into that of a deranged killer, seeing a kind of logic in their madness that allows him to hunt them down. 

While that’s a professional superpower of sorts, it’s also a point of insecurity and a source of deep torture for Will, who struggles with the burden of his extraordinary empathy. Manhunter is thus a different kind of psychological thriller: while its dive into the depraved minds of Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy is certainly disturbing, it’s the obsessive, sanity-smashing effect the investigation has on Will that is most terrifying. Add to that Dante Spinotti’s impossibly vivid cinematography, Tom Noonan’s shudder-inducing performance as the voyeuristic Tooth Fairy, and the film’s surprisingly layered treatment of the murderer, and this is the serial-killer movie to end all others.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Horror, Thriller

Actor: Alexandra Neil, Annie McEnroe, Benjamin Hendrickson, Bill Cwikowski, Bill Smitrovich, Brian Cox, Chris Elliott, Cynthia Chvatal, Dan Butler, David Allen Brooks, David Seaman, Dennis Farina, Elisabeth Ryall, Frankie Faison, Garcelle Beauvais, Jim Zubiena, Joan Allen, Joanne Camp, John Posey, Ken Colquitt, Kim Greist, Kin Shriner, LA Winters, Marshall Bell, Michael D. Roberts, Michael Talbott, Michele Shay, Norman Snow, Pat Williams, Patricia Charbonneau, Paul Perri, Peter Maloney, Robin Moseley, Stephen Lang, Tom Noonan, William Petersen

Director: Michael Mann

Bad Lieutenant is no misnomer: Harvey Keitel’s policeman really is one of NYPD’s worst. Already corrupt, abrasive, and abusive at the film’s outset, the movie chronicles his coked-out descent into total depravity after he’s called to investigate a heinous crime amid rapidly worsening personal circumstances. The brilliance of Bad Lieutenant is therefore a counterintuitive one: as awful as the Lieutenant is, we can’t help but feel emotionally involved because, in Keitel’s bravura performance, we can see the glint of pain — and thus of a person — within.

Always one for provocation, director Abel Ferrara pushes our empathy to — and maybe even beyond — its natural limits, only to break with the film’s hitherto unrelenting grit and dangle the glinting possibility of transcendent redemption in front of us. Anyone familiar with Catholic guilt cinema (movies like Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door and Mean Streets) will instantly recognize the same undercurrent running through Bad Lieutenant — even if Ferrara takes the idea of juxtaposing the profane with the sacred to the extreme here.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Bianca Hunter, Bo Dietl, Brian McElroy, Dana Dee, Darryl Strawberry, Ed Kovens, Eddie Daniels, Frank Adonis, Frankie Acciarito, Frankie Thorn, G. Elvis Phillips, Gene Canfield, Harvey Keitel, Heather Bracken, Iraida Polanco, Jaime Sánchez, John Steven Jones, Leonard L. Thomas, Minnie Gentry, Paul Calderon, Paul Hipp, Peggy Gormley, Penelope Allen, Phil Neilson, Stella Keitel, Stephen Chen, Victor Argo, Victoria Bastel, Vincent Laresca, Zoë Lund

Director: Abel Ferrara

Following is the first movie Christopher Nolan ever directed, a mesmerizing low-budget effort that introduced the world to the genius who will later give us Memento, Inception, The Dark Knight, and many other classics. Shot in "extreme" conditions to quote Nolan himself, for just over £3000, it had to be filmed in the span of a year on Saturdays only and in friends' houses. But almost none of that is visible in the sharp camera work, the magnificent acting (most of it was first or second takes), and the twisted script. It tells the story of an unsuccessful writer (The Young Man) who tries to find inspiration in following random people in the street, and doing it via strict rules. One day he follows a man in a suit (Cobb), who catches him and becomes intrigued by him. It turns out that Cobb has his own fascination with people's intimate lives, of criminal nature, which he lets The Young Man into. Using the same non-linear plot technique as in Memento, this movie is halfway between a thriller and a film noir. The inspiration for it came when Nolan's own apartment in London was robbed, and he was fascinated by the act of strangers going through his personal items. If you take into consideration the conditions of its making, this movie is a masterpiece.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Alex Haw, Barbara Stepansky, David Julyan, Dick Bradsell, Emma Thomas, Gillian El-Kadi, Jennifer Angel, Jeremy Theobald, John Nolan, Lucy Russell, Nicolas Carlotti, Paul Mason, Rebecca James

Director: Christopher Nolan

Rating: R